As a kid on Christmas morning, I would gaze at the pile of papered packages beneath the tree, searching for the big one—with my name on it. Biggest was best, of course, and so I would spot it, pick up the oversized gift with my child size body, and place it at my parents’ feet. I perched and pleaded for my turn to unwrap the promise contained within the bright and festive Christmas paper.
Our first year in Orange, I learned that St. John’s does “big,” well at Christmas time too. Big crowds pack in to worship within an ornately decorated sanctuary, aglow with strings of lights and candles, colored by brilliant stained glass windows, and humming with breathtaking music. St. John’s also does big outreach events for the holidays, things like hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas for kinship families, Project 23, and Operation Christmas Child. I love all these things, and more, about my church.
When I first came to St. John’s, I just stood in awe, taking it all in— all the vibrant ministries, all the worship opportunities, all the talent and history. I came from a small church, where I was the big fish, and at our new church, I wasn’t sure of where I fit in.
But like a God who would send an infant to a manger in Bethlehem, to make his grand appearance, I found my place at St. John’s enfolded in the humble and gracious fabric of its people.
On Ash Wednesday this year, we received word that our daughter, Elyse, had a rare auto-immune disease called Juvenile Dermatomyositis. It quickly spiraled, and a week later, Nathan and I cradled our 18-month old in the hospital, so weak she couldn’t walk or lift her head.
By God’s grace and provision we were able to get back on our feet, and with treatment, Elyse has been doing remarkably better. But, on Mother’s Day, a pipe burst in our bathroom, leaving our family of four displaced from our home for three months.
I thought I would find my place at St. John’s on a platform, but little did I know I would find it within the space of my greatest vulnerability and need.
It was in these circumstances I experienced St. John’s story through eye to eye relationships, through humble and heartfelt generosity, and the love that spills into the cracks of ache, like a trickle from the altar.
In my deepest pain I encountered the sweetest mercy, through loving home cooked meals that tasted like grace. The Haiducs can make a mean lasagna. One day a box of “busy bags” showed up from an army of St. John’s moms, with toys and crafts that lifted Bree’s spirits and kept her busy, and scraps of Bible verses to keep me going. One day a bouquet of dandelions and ingredients for smoothies was dropped on our doorstep. A check arrived in the mail to meet the amount due for an overdue hospital bill. The Friendship Quilters made a quilt sewn and tied with hope and prayer for our Elyse.
I shared on Facebook one day that Elyse’s sun sensitivity had gotten worse, and two days later, someone showed up with a princess parasol for her. While the teachers at St. John’s gathered hand drawn Bible verses and other inspiration in a book, for our family. Classes of kids drew cards of encouragement, and bowed their heads in countless prayers for a baby girl they knew only from pictures.
When our house filled with water, St John’s families showed up with towels, and buckets, strong arms, and hot boxes of pizza. As we tried to get our house ready to move back in, two high school students from church, volunteered to watch our girls, as a St. John’s life group of 6 people arrived in work clothes, to vacuum, mop, and organize.
I love big gifts. This year I’m thinking about getting my girls a Barbie doll house to unwrap on Christmas day (Shhh! Don’t tell!). I love sitting in a magnificent, century old church, and feeling small, as I join my voice with an overwhelming chorus of worship. But lately, God is helping me to appreciate small gifts too. He’s giving me eyes to see the small gifts of handmade love and outstretched hearts that tell the story of St. John’s through community, and relationships.
I think thats the story God was teaching us with Christmas too. Instead of a big platform, God sent his son in the helpless package of soft, baby flesh—displayed for shepherds to worship in a wooden manger surrounded by livestock. Immanuel, God-with-us, came to Earth completely dependent on relationships, for a mother to love and nurture, and a Father to guide. Jesus began his ministry by becoming close friends with twelve other men, by touching, by healing, and by serving people.
Tonight I’m grateful for my baby Elyse. I’m grateful for every smile, for every step she takes, and when she twirls, I watch in awe. I’m grateful that God uses babies to remind us of who He is. I’m grateful that, through her, God has taught us what St. John’s is all about—God sized love—in human packages.
So I guess this Christmas, the question I’m left with, is how do I continue the story?